in Ethicist

The Ethicist: 29 November 2017

Should I Keep Working for a Raging Bigot?

Question:

I am a graduate student…. I have a job as an assistant…. It is just the two of us, and he pays me very well, allows me to work the hours I want, gives me a good deal of responsibility and is willing to give me in-depth training. He is, however, racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted and sexist. I am very liberal and find his ideas on many subjects to be repugnant. Though I have asked that he not talk about politics when we are together, he still does so from time to time. I often just let him speak and barely engage … I feel guilty …

Correct answer:

You describe your views as “very liberal,” which is to say that they are what’s fashionable today. If you are a graduate student now, you are probably in your early to mid 20s, which means you were probably born in the 1990s, which means you probably don’t remember a time when what’s now considered “racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted and sexist,” was fashionable. Fashions change, but your boss’s opinions haven’t changed with the fashions, and this has caused cognitive dissonance for you.

Because you are probably young, you probably have not yet had the opportunity to observe how quickly and how (apparently) senselessly fashions evolve, or can be made to evolve; consequently, you probably have never experienced your boss’s cognitive dissonance at being described as a “raging bigot” for having beliefs that were well within the norm when he was your age.

Quitting your cushy job because you can’t bear the physical proximity of someone whose beliefs are wrong and obnoxious is certainly one way to deal with your situation, but before taking this approach, you should carefully consider two other questions:

  • First, of all the beliefs that you do not share, which are you willing to tolerate and which do you find intolerable? Are you willing to interrogate all of your close friends and family members to determine whether they hold any beliefs on your black list, and proceed to block them out of your life? How supportive and loving would, say, your elderly grandparents need to be in order for them to be exempted from the horrible consequences of your graduate school Inquisition?
  • Second, how will you feel in the future when fashions inevitably change, turning your own beliefs into what graduate students consider to be raging bigotry? How frequently are you willing to change what you believe – every decade, every election cycle, every season? Is there anything that you believe so firmly that you will never change your mind about it? If business opportunities are denied to you in the future because nobody will agree to work in the presence of a raging bigot like you, to whom will you turn for financial support?

Here is an important lesson: when you arrive at work, you are arriving to work. Don’t engage in political discussions with your boss. Don’t encourage him to discuss politics with you under any circumstances. Don’t let yourself be drawn into anything controversial.

Here’s another important lesson: it’s helpful to forget the terms “racist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” “bigoted” and “sexist.” They aren’t very descriptive, obscure more than they reveal, and are subject to definitions that shift so rapidly that they can hardly be committed to print. As someone preparing for a career working with rare books and manuscripts, you should nurture an appreciation of the timeless and the sublime, rather than the transitory and the fashionable.

Question:

My boyfriend is a great person … He could be the one…. he made me promise not to talk to my ex-boyfriend and said that if I did, it would be the end of us as a couple…. When my current boyfriend made me promise not to talk to my ex, I accepted, and my ex did, too, and wished me luck…. I reconnected with him, without remembering my promise to my boyfriend….. It has now started to bother me that I’ve been lying to my boyfriend… I believe he will eventually soften up, but he has not. What is the right thing to do?

Correct answer:

There’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that your boyfriend is not “the one,” and the good news is that your boyfriend is not “the one.”

As someone who doesn’t do the jealousy thing, I don’t quite entirely understand when other people do it, but it seems like it’s being done to you now. Your choice, then, is not whether your boyfriend is going to be jealous or not, but whether you’re going to comply and enable his jealousy thing or not.

I recommend the following test to determine where your boyfriend’s limits really are: invite your ex-boyfriend, along with anyone he may be dating, to share a meal with you and your boyfriend. If your boyfriend will not allow you to eat and speak with your ex-boyfriend even in that sort of setting, then his opposition really is absolute, and I recommend that you break up with him immediately, without waiting to find out how many other people he wants to cut out of your life.